Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Writing and Reality Collide

Our little group at my personal essay workshop on Saturday morning had some great discussion about writing--I think I gathered enough info for a few weeks' worth of posts.

One of the topics that really seemed to get the group going was the often sensitive issue of writing about friends or family--particularly in the context of personal essays or poetry, which can often stir up some long-ago memories or hard feelings.

We all had our own opinions on the subject. Family issues are an endless source of inspiration for writers, whether they're essays, articles, columns, poems, what have you. Relatives need to understand this--if there's a writer in the family, chances are good that an embarrassing childhood story might resurface in a magazine or website somewhere along the line. And as writers, we have to be prepared to accept the fact that our loved ones may be sensitive to how we portray them or the rest of the family, and be willing to accept the consequences.

A few thoughts on writing about friends or family:

Be honest with your loved ones. If your piece has been published, someone in your family's network will see it. I can promise you this. Be up front about the fact that you wrote this essay or poem based on something in your family's history.

Change names to protect the guilty. Better yet, don't name names at all. Obviously, your parents or siblings are still your parents or siblings, no matter how many times you change their names. If your proud mom and dad share your latest essay with their friends or co-workers, of course they'll know who you're referring to when you talk about "Mom" in your piece.

Remind them that an essay is your recollection of an experience. You could be writing about the family's disastrous vacation to the Grand Canyon in 1985, and without a doubt, every member of your family remembers it differently. Only you know if you had a secret stash of Razzles in your duffel bag. Maybe your sister was hoarding some Mike 'n Ike's that she would snack on when no one was looking. Everyone has their own memory of a shared experience. Simply remind them that you're recalling the experience as you were at the time.

Find the humor in it. Everyone can relate to family vacations or holiday get-togethers that didn't quite go as planned. Aim for a humorous angle. Your parents may be embarrassed, but odds are they won't disown you. Even the best of cooks burn the turkey once in awhile--your mom shouldn't feel too badly about it! So you have a funny story about your best friend's car getting towed by accident. Stuff happens. It's funny. Write it down.

How do you handle writing about those closest to you?

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